REVISITED: Cotillion – Georgette Heyer

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Author: Georgette Heyer

UK Publisher: Arrow

Genre: Romance, historical fiction

See Also: Charity Girl; Regency Buck; These Old Shades; Frederica

Kitty Charing’s life-changing inheritance comes with a catch.

Her eccentric and childless guardian, Mr. Penicuik, is leaving Kitty all of his vast fortune – but with one condition. She must marry one of his five grand-nephews.

However, Kitty’s clear favourite – the rakish Jack Westruther – doesn’t appear at all interested in the arrangement. To make Jack jealous, Kitty impulsively convinces his cousin, the kind-hearted and chivalrous Freddy Standen, to enter into a pretend engagement.

But the more time she spends with Freddy, the more Kitty wonders whether Jack is the right choice after all…

My ongoing campaign to try and forget that there’s anything wrong at all by reading an awful lot of Georgette Heyer is going absolutely swimmingly thank you, why do you ask? This particular one is one I read several times as a teenager and really enjoyed, but couldn’t for the life of me remember the title of, and never managed to find again when I was shamelessly pilfering books from my mother’s bookshelves. After a lovely phone call with my mum the other week, where neither of us could remember what it was called, some Google-fu helped us to work it out and I nabbed myself a kindle copy.

This is unusual for one of Heyer’s books in that the romantic lead, Freddy, is not the most handsome man, or the richest, or the smartest. He’s seen by everyone around him as extremely dim, and only really interested in fashion. He’s not well-read, not a sportsman, not titled (although due to become a Viscount). His defining characteristics? He’s kind, polite, and dependable. Which is how Kitty manages to convince him to take part in one of my favourite romance tropes – the fake engagement.

The two characters rub along delightfully, because managing Kitty suddenly wakes up initiative that Freddy didn’t realise he had, shocking everyone who knew him; meanwhile Kitty, who has never been into London before, finds herself relying on him more and more without realising. Freddy might not be book-smart, but he’s very socially adept and able to read people well, while Kitty is a little bit sharper but lacks the social intelligence to keep herself out of trouble. They improve each other as the book progresses, and their love story is very subtle as they both mature and develop.

In general, I’d say this is a great book, except I had forgotten about Dolph.

Lord Dolphington is one of Freddy’s many cousins, along with Jack, the dashing, handsome, rich rogue, Hugh, the vicar, and George, the prosy older one. It’s clear from the writing that perhaps he has some kind of learning difficulty, but it’s not clear what. He seems to be just cast aside as more than usually dim. Whether part of this is 1920s-1930s sensibility of development (which wasn’t great), or Regency-era level ignorance (which was even worse) I couldn’t say. I’ve mentioned before that there is a lot about Heyer’s books that have to be considered in the period of their writing, and this feels like a big thing in the middle of an otherwise fairly inoffensive books (save for the usual lack of diversity).

I will say that while Dolph is often used as something of a joke, he’s not always the joke, and I feel he often gets treated better and gets more development than others of his family. Heyer uses the way people treat him as a shorthand for whether they’re a decent character and can be trusted. Jack has no patience with him at all, while Dolph’s mother tries to bully and control him. Freddy and Kitty, meanwhile, take the time to listen to and work with him. Kitty occasionally finds herself feeling impatient with him, but while she acknowledges that feeling in the narrative she never actually is anything other than good-natured.

Dolph is a sweet character, but he feels a bit like a caricature. I struggled with the way people kept saying they were fond of him and would look after him, but you couldn’t love a man like that. It didn’t sit comfortably. There’s also a threat to get him locked up as mad from sinister parties, but the characters you are supposed to empathise with all recognise this as abhorrent and unnecessary. He’s a litmus test for the morality of the characters around him.

I’m unsure what exactly I’m trying to say here, I suppose because I’m unsure of my own feelings about it. It felt wrong to review this book without mentioning this aspect as Dolph plays a fairly significant role in proceedings. I think it would be for people with more expertise than I in the area of special educational needs to weigh in on whether they feel he’s portrayed fairly, but while perhaps he’s not necessarily an accurate representation I don’t get the impression he’s ever written unkindly. Which makes sense – the entire theme of this book seems to be about kindness and generosity, whether that be social or fiscal. That’s why Freddy is the perfect hero.

Aside from that, it’s a quite charming love story, with lots of Heyer’s trademark wit and chaos. Some of it hasn’t aged well – and while I believe that it wasn’t written in anything other than the best intentions, it’s a little uncomfortable to contemporary sensibilities, and you will have to consider how you feel about that for yourself when taking on this book.

Briefly:

  • A fake engagement love story with unusual features for a Heyer – neither of the leads is particularly smart or attractive, but they’re both kind and mild-tempered, and they mesh perfectly well with each other.
  • Dolph is an uncomfortable character for being part of a major subplot, as in today’s world it’s likely he would be considered to have learning disabilities. I don’t think he’s treated badly in the narrative as such, but the way he’s represented is probably not great by modern standards.
  • My favourite thing is perhaps the constant descriptions of other characters’ surprise and bemusement when it turns out Freddy has been smarter than they gave him credit for all along, he simply lacked sufficient cause or interest to exert himself.

Rating: 3/5 – I have a fondness for this book which goes back a long way. While it means that I don’t overlook the issues with it, it does mean that I can set them aside somewhat because of my nostalgia. I’m not sure this would be the case for every reader.

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